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SUMMER OLYMPIC COUNTDOWN --- 17 DAYS: Once-shamed U.S. sprinting star Gatlin poised for ultimate Olympic redemption

After returning from a four-year drug ban — which he still disputes to this day — American star and Pensacola, Fla., native Justin Gatlin celebrates with his son Jace after winning the men’s 100-meter final two weeks ago at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. Gatlin won the Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004, then failed to defend his title last year in Beijing after he was banned for excessive testosterone levels.

After returning from a four-year drug ban — which he still disputes to this day — American star and Pensacola, Fla., native Justin Gatlin celebrates with his son Jace after winning the men’s 100-meter final two weeks ago at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. Gatlin won the Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004, then failed to defend his title last year in Beijing after he was banned for excessive testosterone levels.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: In preparation for the start of the 2012 Summer Olympics, The Herald will count down the days until the Games begin July 27 in London with at least one preview or feature in each day’s sports section about the athletes and their stories that make the Olympic Games so special. Enjoy!)

The last time Justin Gatlin took the stage at the Olympic trials, he was a kid on the brink of becoming the next big sprinter in track.

Those days seem long ago.

So much has transpired for Gatlin since the ’04 trials, when he finished second to Maurice Greene and knocked off a college star named Tyson Gay to make the U.S. squad.

A month later, Gatlin captured the 100-meter Olympic crown in Athens.

A year later, he was a world champion.

Then came his swift fall from grace.

Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, leading to a four-year ban and preventing him from defending his title in Beijing.

Now 30 and late in his career, Gatlin returned to the trials recently with almost a detached demeanor.

But that quickly turned to a tearful celebration when he conquered the field, which again included Gay, to win the 100M finals in 9.80 and put the rest of the track & field world on alert: J.G. was back.

Afterward, there’s simply no time for a stroll down memory lane, only time to speed down his lane.

For Gatlin, there was so much at stake at the trials in Eugene, Ore., when he broke away from American favorite Gay down the stretch and beat him by .06 seconds for U.S.A.’s top spot at the London Summer Olympics, which begin July 27.

Because this was another chance — maybe the biggest so far — to restore his tarnished career.

“I owe my friends and my family a great show. I owe them a great comeback,” said Gatlin, a Pensacola, Fla., native. “I owe it to show the world that I am a God-given talent, and I will compete until I can’t compete no more.

“I owe them a heartfelt show. Not just some entertainment, where I’m dancing around, but something that people want to watch, that’s almost Rocky-esque. Something you want to root for and watch and down the road you can say, ‘I saw that.’ ”

On the surface, Gatlin is treating his return to Olympics as nothing more than another race at another meet, vowing to switch off all emotional attachment.

His approach is simple: Pack his bags, board the plane for London, run three fast rounds and hopefully, just hopefully head back home with a second gold medal.

Simple as that.

Only, his facade has cracks.

For a runner who wears his heart on his sleeve, hiding his true feelings doesn’t come easy.

Indeed, returning to the trials after being away for nearly eight years meant the world to him and choked him up. He said taking one look at the fans in the stands that were rooting on his return made his heart melt when he thought of those four years away from the sport — four years Gatlin still claims should’ve never been taken away by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

“Usually, I have a lot of words. I’m almost speechless,” Gatlin said after he won the 100M trials. “Everything just feels so surreal. I just let the heart really go out and do what it had to do. I wasn’t too hyped, wasn’t too calm. It felt just right and went out there and gave it my all. I have a lot more left in the tank.”

Although Gay was the favorite to win the top spot, it now appears that Gatlin actually be the one to beat.

After all, his time of 9.87 seconds at a race last month in Doha had been tops among Americans this season — before Gatlin topped it in Eugene. Not only that, but Gatlin held off rival Asafa Powell of Jamaica to win that race.

To Gatlin, the stellar time and victory over Powell served as proof that he was on the right path to securing a spot for the Olympics and maybe mending his name in the sport.

He insists the positive test was caused when a massage therapist rubbed a testosterone-like cream onto his legs.

Believe him or not. He knows he can’t sway people at this point, especially given his past ties to Trevor Graham, the former coach who was given a lifetime ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs.

Long ago, Gatlin made peace with the idea there will always be skeptics who believe he doesn’t deserve a second chance.

“But that (time in Doha) showed the world I’m a legitimate athlete. If that didn’t prove I’m back or I’ve outrun my past …” Gatlin said, his words trailing off. “I’m in a different place now, with a different coach and I’m much older, but I’m still able to do the things I’ve done before in the same fashion.”

Last season was a warm-up act for Gatlin, his first full year on the circuit since being reinstated from his ban on July 24, 2010. He kept a rather low profile, preferring to blend in rather than stand out. He didn’t want to make any waves.

But this season is a different story, especially with London so close.

It’s show time.

And Gatlin has changed up just about everything when it comes to his approach this time around.

He left track guru Brooks Johnson last November to train under Dennis Mitchell, a member of the 400-meter relay team that won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

“Brooks and I sat down and I explained to him that for me to be the premiere athlete I know I can be, and he knows I can be, I need training partners. I need someone to engage me,” Gatlin said. “He agreed with me. He gave me his blessing.”

Each day in practice, Gatlin now goes up against Churandy Martina of Netherlands Antilles, the sprinter who finished fourth in the 100 in Beijing.

“Obviously, it’s been working out for me pretty well,” Gatlin said.

Of course, how well it works out for Gatlin in London remains to be seen. After all, there’s still one man who everyone fears in the sport: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the 2008 champ in Beijing who set a new world record with a time of 9.58 in the process.

Gatlin said he looks forward to the challenge of facing Bolt.

“I think he is a great talent and a great runner. I’m just glad to be back and in my top form,” Gatlin said.

Not to be forgotten on that list of contenders to take on Bolt, however, is another rising star: Bolt’s training partner and countryman Yohan Blake, who actually beat Bolt in the finals of the recent 100M and 200M trials. Blake was first in both, while Bolt was second.

Some feel Gatlin and Gay have what it takes to win.

“(Justin and Tyson) can really encourage each other and motivate each other to take on that other little island out there who’s been dominating America,” said former hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, who represents Gatlin.

Gatlin is also the first to remind fans not to forget about Gay, who has started to become an afterthought with Gatlin’s resurgence and Jamaica’s expected dominance.

“That was an impressive race,” Gatlin said of Gay’s 100M trials finish. “Tyson’s one of the strongest competitors that’s out there. As long as his body holds up, he’ll be in the race.”

Gatlin’s confident he will, too, as long as he keeps his emotions in check.

“I’m trying not to make it bigger than what it needs to be,” Gatlin said. “It’s definitely the kind of sport where you have to stay on top of your game or the game leaves you behind.

“I just want to go out there and run as good as I can.”